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Athens Mayor Georgios Kaminis
interviewed by an international audience

14 February 2017: World Mayor invited participants from the 2016 Project to put questions to Athens Mayor Georgio Kaminis, winner of the 2016 World Mayor Commendation for services to refugees. From the questions received, a representative selection was forwarded to the mayor. He replies below with candour and thoughtfulness.


QUESTIONS
By Dimitri P., Athens:
Question:
It is the second time that an Athens Mayor has been shortlisted for the World Mayor Prize. In 2005 when Dora Bakoyannis was nominated, many believed that the city after the Olympics stood at the brink of a golden era. Your own nomination comes amid one of the gravest economic and humanitarian crisis the city has ever faced. What is Athens’ future?

Mayor Kaminis replies: Athens has been the epicentre of a severe economic and social crisis, which has had a severe impact on Greek society. Our first priority was to create a wide network of social services, which to this day, provides a wide range of services to more than 26,000 people on a daily basis. I would say that today we are in a better position and more optimistic to deal with this crisis.

We have made a persistent effort to combine forces and work hand in hand with all stakeholders of the city including the business sector. The results have been impressive in many areas, especially in tourism, attracting an increasing (and substantially higher than in the past) number of tourists from all over the world. The growth of Athens tourism has been a major source of job creation for hundreds of young people and entrepreneurs. In the year 2015, Athens reached its highest number of tourist arrivals, notably exceeding even the number of visitors during the year of 2004 when the Olympic Games were held: 4.2 million travellers visited our city, a number which translates in the creation of hundreds of new jobs in the tourism industry of the city.

Certainly, Athens has a lot of potential. We have realized that and we have been focusing our efforts to exploit this potential. Safety, quality accommodation and services, hospitality and the warmth of our city make our visitors happy and their stay pleasant and attractive. According to the New York Times, Athens is included in the 50 top destinations of the world.


By George F., New York City, USA
Question:
In your experience what are the short and long-term challenges of accepting so many refugees and what are you doing to address these issues?

Mayor Kaminis replies:
During 2015-2016, Athens was faced with the short-term challenge of finding temporary solutions in order to provide food, shelter and health care to large number of refugees arriving at or passing through the city. This was a tremendous challenge for our city, as it did not have any existing infrastructure to respond to the needs of the newcomers. The municipality quickly took action to fill this gap. Already in August 2015, when the daily inflow of refugees entering Greece started to peak, the municipality provided a piece of land to the Greek government to create a camp where refugees can be temporarily accommodated. The so-called “Elaionas” camp has been expanded, and currently has the capacity to host up to 2,400 people.

In cooperation with the UNHCR, the Athens municipality has also been running a housing program, in the frame of which privately owned apartment are rented out to refugee families waiting to be relocated in an EU country. We also provide medical care and vaccination to the refugees and their children in our municipal clinics. We have significantly benefited from the presence of many INGOs who help us with their expertise. The solidarity exhibited by Athenians has also helped us cope successfully with the situation without negatively affecting the city’s social cohesion.

The long-term challenge still ahead of us though is to promote the successful integration of refugees in the Athens. Learning the language, building a life in a city that was not their intended destination, getting socially active after many months on the move, are all big challenges for the refugee population but also for the local society. The first few steps have been made: children go to school, and Greek and English language lessons are provided through our “Open Schools” program throughout the city. Integration in the labor market is another major challenge, particularly in view of the prolonged economic recession that the Greek economy has experienced from 2009 until 2016.

It must be noted that the Municipality does not have explicit or significant competences on migrant and refugee integration. Nevertheless, we decided to assume an active role and take action. To this end we have also created a new position of Vice Mayor for Refugees and Immigration. We have chosen to work with international partners and with European and private funds to cope with a situation that for us is like “a crisis within the crisis”. We welcome the experience of other European cities, with a longer tradition on migrant integration, and we use their best practices in our long-term integration strategy.

We believe that this challenge can also be seen as an opportunity. Seeing it this way, we have sought to draw from and build on the dormant capacity of the city (inactive population, abandoned buildings, new city needs that cannot be covered by the public sector, and so on) in order to find creative solutions that simultaneously cater to the needs of the Athenian population for a better life in the city overall.


By Stelios D., Athens
Question:
How does the Municipality of Athens, given its budget constraints, keep a balance between providing support to the refugees and assisting the local population mostly affected by the economic crisis?

Mayor Kaminis replies: For the Municipality of Athens (“MoA”), refugees and local population affected by the economic crisis are both considered vulnerable target groups for social programs and services. Municipal structures, such as the Reception and Solidarity Centre and Municipal Clinics do not differentiate locals and refugees when it comes to providing food, clothing and personal hygiene products or primary health care services including medical prescriptions.

Following the same rationale, access to MoA’s Social Housing Network is provided to families on the basis of socioeconomic criteria and independently of their nationality. As already mentioned, refugees are accommodated in rented apartments, in the framework of a project coordinated by the UNHCR, funded by the European Commission and implemented by the Municipality. In this project as well as in others, the aim is to cover refugees’ basic needs and to prepare for their social integration (i.e. language classes). Special care is taken to adequately inform and keep an open channel of dialogue with the neighbourhood in order to prevent discrimination incidents.


By George F., New York City, USA
Question:
How are you engaging with citizens of Athens to encourage them to continue to welcome the refugees and join you in your commitment to helping and integrating the newcomers?

Mayor Kaminis replies: The Athenian population has shown a unique spirit of voluntary engagement in responding to the overwhelming inflow of refugees. More than 90 different initiatives have been mapped in Athens, for the nearly 15,000 refugees who live within the borders of our Municipality. In this spontaneous effort, a large international population of inspired active citizens has come to Athens to join forces to respond to the countless and urgent humanitarian needs.

However, there is a fine line between such formal organizations and the informal activism that flourishes (which is also accounted for in the above numbers). The role of the Municipality has been to strengthen its official ties with the UNHCR and large NGOs who manage a part of this population, without discouraging some of the positive impact of independent unofficial initiatives.

The Municipality of Athens has also created a platform to bring together an increasing number of creative community groups who have been active since the beginning of the crisis in Greece. More than 2,500 activities from 300 different groups are mapped on a platform named “synAthina”, which also empowers these voluntary best practices in various ways. The platform allows independent synergies and networks to develop among those involved in similar activities such as the refugee issue, without patronizing their own committed spirit. But at the same time, it encourages such groups to collaborate and open a constructive dialogue with the Municipality.

In these informal initiatives one finds invaluable impact, inspiration and exemplary citizenship. My role as Mayor of Athens is to incite these active citizens to bring their knowledge forward and build collaborative solutions for the smooth integration of refugees in the city.

I believe that my own initiative “Solidarity Cities” to establish a network of European capitals as host societies and refugee destinations, sends as an empowering message on behalf of like-minded citizens of Europe sharing similar values.


By Aristea T. and Stelios D. Athens:
Question:
Do you see the arrival of migrants and refugees mostly as a humanitarian issue or could the newcomers provide Athens with new opportunities?

Mayor Kaminis replies: It is self-evident that the refugee crisis is primarily a humanitarian crisis as large numbers of dislocated people have been fleeing their country mainly because of war. Their situation is different in many respects from that of migrants or immigrants arriving from zones of milder political or economic instability.

Financial Impact
Beyond tackling the dramatic increase of the numbers of refugees reaching Greece and responding to the humanitarian crisis, the influx of new populations and groups creates new opportunities for Athens. Already, there we can discern a positive financial benefit for residents of our city who can rent their empty apartments to incoming refugees. This is taking place in the frame of the housing program that the Athens municipality has been running in cooperation with the UNHCR to provide temporary accommodation for refugees. This agreement is a very important contribution of the city of Athens to the management of the refugee crisis. Our municipal authority will continue to work to ensure humane living conditions for refugees, while simultaneously ensuring the social cohesion of the city and its residents.

In the frame of our “Relocation Program”, the City of Athens has been implementing the housing and accommodation project that aims at renting more than 260 apartments for 2,000 beneficiaries, and at creating a community center for hosting and promoting the social inclusion of refugees.

The City of Athens “Relocation Program” is funded 100% by the European Union. These funds are allocated to meet the all-around needs of the refugees, which at the end are funneled into the local economy and market. Through the program the local real estate market has benefited by contracting out all these unrented apartments, generating income for their financially vulnerable owners. Every apartment rented has its utility bills paid by the program. Additionally, all of the apartments are renovated and fully equipped with new furniture, electrical appliances, household items, linen etc., by the program, substantially helping the local businesses.

The Program also provides the eligible refugees with financial assistance through pre-paid cards, enabling them to purchase food, basic necessities and city transportation tickets. As a result, this is another significant cash injection into the local market and economy, mainly in neighborhoods of our city that have been severely hit by the economic crisis.

Jobs Creation
In order to implement the Program, new staff had to be hired. Currently close to one hundred young professionals, social scientists, case handlers, apartment supervisors, interpreters, management and administrative professionals, doctors, psychologists, counselors, etc., who were previously unemployed, are hired and offer their services. Hiring more staff becomes necessary as the project needs grow.

Multiculturalism / Cultural Diversity
Refugees inject important human capital for our city. Many of them are skilled, educated people with expertise in a variety of fields and professions. For those who will choose to stay in our country, it becomes a challenge for us to integrate them into our society in the best possible manner, helping the revival of our economy in the city’s neighborhoods. The newcomers can become a source of enrichment in the modern multi-ethnic and multicultural urban environment of our city.


By Manos M., Athens:
Question:
Does the City of Athens have any idea how many of the refugees and/or migrants will make the city their new home? Does the City have any idea how to integrate them and prepare them for a productive and happy life in Athens?

Mayor Kaminis replies: In addition to the tens of thousands of migrants who have been living inAthens since the early 90s, there are currently about 15,000 refugees in the Municipality. Well over 200,000 Third Country Nationals (TCNs) live in the broader metropolitan area of Attica. Some of them have applied for asylum status and are waiting for their application to be processed in Greece. Others are waiting to be relocated in another European country. Athens is not an attractive destination for most refugees because there are few job opportunities for them. Despite of this, some of them chose to file for asylum in our country and will most likely stay or end up in the capital where they have easier access to services, networks, and opportunities.

Greece does not have a long experience in receiving migrants. We were traditionally a nation of emigrants. In the past 25-30 years, even after several waves of migrants have come to our country, we still have not developed any specialized structure for their integration. In addition to that, in the recent years, the national system and infrastructure of social services have been severely affected by the economic crisis. Greece has for a long time been an entry point and a transit country for immigrants coming into Europe. In regard to the recent mass influx of refugees, research confirms that few people want to make Greece and our city their new home.

Now that the refugee crisis has subsided – at least for as long as the EU Agreement with Turkey remains functional – we have a better picture of the next day and we are working on how to best integrate the people who will in the end remain in the city. In view of their relatively small number, the task is very manageable. What is more difficult and challenging and challenging though is how to achieve their successful integration in the context of a severe economic crisis and the rise of populism.


By Gisela S., Brussels, Belgium
Question:
Last year, Athens was a co-founder of ‘Solidarity Cities’. What benefits will your city derive from the new organisation?

Mayor Kaminis replies: “Solidarity Cities” is the cities’ response to the refugee crisis that erupted last year. In a joint statement issued with other large cities of Europe, we declared that our role in dealing with the multiple implications of this major challenge is crucial.
 I am proud to say that this is a political initiative that I proposed to the EU capital cities’ mayors at our annual meeting last April and it was unanimously endorsed. “Solidarity Cities” overall platform is structured around four main pillars:

1) Information and knowledge exchange on the refugee situation in cities
2) Advocacy for greater involvement and direct funding for cities to manage the reception and integration of refugees
3) City-to-city technical and financial assistance and capacity building
4) Elicit the commitment of European cities to receive relocated asylum seekers
In a nutshell, it is an initiative that captures the ongoing efforts of cities at the local level to receive and integrate refugees. It also highlights and further promotes the need for cities to have a recognized, and stronger role in these areas, being frontrunners in the promotion of coexistence and mutual respect.

The City of Athens has already significantly benefited from this initiative. It has established close cooperation with cities such as Amsterdam, Berlin and Barcelona as well as the Eurocities Network. This has not only enabled it to acquire more expertise on how to deal with this challenge. It has also established a forum where the Athens’ municipality can to jointly (with other cities) advocate for a fair sharing of responsibilities at local, national and EU level, based on the European values of solidarity, humanity and dignity.


By Yolita B., Oslo, Norway
Last week, I visited Athens again after a long time and my questions will be connected to those recent impressions of mine.
 

Question 1: The number of homeless people over the last years has increased in the centre of Athens, along with the number of closed down shops. There are municipality structures/teams providing meals, blankets and laundry facilities to the homeless, but they do not seem to use them or abandon their individual spots at the corners. Isn't there a way to help these people more actively, to persuade them live under roof, rather than at the street corners? Isn't there previous experience from other cities with similar issues?

Mayor Kaminis replies: In March 2015 - March 2016, the Municipality’s Reception and Solidarity Center’s street-workers performed a thorough survey on the homeless population of the city center. This survey has provided us with both quantitative and qualitative data, allowing us to better understand the profile of homeless people.
 According to the survey’s findings, there are two main reasons why homeless people may deny their referral to accommodation structures:

1) They are reluctant to abandon their “individual spot” and go to a place where they have to live together with other people under the same roof. This reluctance grows stronger, the longer the time they spend on the streets. More than half of this population has been homeless for a period of 1-10 years.
2) The second reason, partially overlapping with the first, concerns more specifically the homeless population affected by drugs and/or alcohol addiction issues. They represent nearly 50% of the total homeless population. Until very recently, national legislation treated them as non-eligible to receive accommodation services.

Following a significant legislative reform in May 2016, which specified the prerequisites for specialized personnel needed in the shelters, homeless drug and/or alcohol users are henceforth allowed to access accommodation services. Following this recent development, the Municipality is currently working on a new shelter for homeless people, a Night Shelter and a Day care Centre that will be operating in complementarity at the same site.


Question 2: The many closed down shops are bleak and dirty, I believe that they affect negatively the moral of the inhabitants of Athens, and to a certain extent that of the visitors. I could not walk along Stadiou or Patission avenues without feeling terribly low and miserable. Is there any plan to intervene to those parts and streets that have been abandoned, so that they become, even if only superficially, more cheerful for the sake of the inhabitants feelings?

Mayor Kaminis replies: First of all I would like to share some good news regarding the revitalization of Stadiou Street, in the centre of Athens. Our persistent efforts to restore the two famous movie theatres of “Attikon” and “Apollon”, which had been entirely burnt and destroyed during protests in February 2011, have finally born fruit. The works for their restoration will soon begin. It is estimated that the buildings with the restored movie theatres will again be open to the public by September 2017.

The two landmark movie theatres along with the famous Ianos bookstore, where many cultural activities take place and the Museum of the City of Athens, a little further down on Stadiou Street will revive life in the area. We expect that these interventions will create a new momentum in this part of the City-centre and attract many residents and tourists.
 Our efforts to help the revival of many central areas of our city that have been suffering from the economic crisis are continuous and persistent. We are always looking for synergies with citizen groups, in order to stimulate creativity and innovation in the public space. We organize seasonal activities and concerts in the Klathmonos Square. A host of other activities take place in the neighboring Korai pedestrian area in cooperation with the National University of Athens, the public library and the Academy of Athens, in an effort to create a positive atmosphere and a positive vibe for the citizens.

Our “Syn-Athina” team plays a central role in this effort, through the online platform which facilitates the work of citizen groups (synathina.gr). In cooperation with the municipality’s cleaning services, we plan a series of actions for the removal of tagging on the phases of many buildings.
 
 On this front too, we are in direct contact with many European cities, exchanging ideas and best practices. We have also taken initiatives to propose and draft legislation in areas that are not within the municipality’s competences, such as the use of abandoned buildings. We seek European funding in order to contribute to the economic revival of Athens. We also partner with the major stakeholders of the sector for the city’s touristic development, a strategy that has so far been very successful.
 Obviously each area of the Athens City-centre has its own characteristics and its own problems. We cannot deal with all the problems neither can we replace the central government – we do not have neither the competences nor the capacity to do so. We have managed, however, to be on our citizens’ side and to stay active and innovative since the first day we took office.


By Iro P., Athens
Question:
I would like to ask George Kaminis if the area of Exarchia can be cleaned and returned to the real Athenian citizens.

Mayor Kaminis replies: The neighborhood of Exarchia is one of the most vibrant and important areas of our city. For many decades it has been the meeting point and residence of many intellectuals, university students and free-spirited people. Unfortunately, just like in many large cities around the world, this is a neighborhood faced with deterioration and decline. Political extremism, violence and ordinary crime have been allowed to take hold in this area for several years now. We want this beautiful neighborhood to flourish again, but this can only happen by restoring safety in the area. This can only be done with the full support of the national government and the law enforcement authorities.

I want to assure you that we do not stay indifferent - not for a single moment - but the issues are so complicated that we cannot deal with this effectively unless we have the involvement and the support of the central government. We need to be very determined about the crackdown of crime. If we succeed on that, we can then work for the return of business activity, improve the infrastructure and upgrade the services provided in the area. Then the lives of the people will come back to normality.


By Konstantinos P, Athens
Question:
Do you sometimes wish you hadn’t entered politics and could return to being an academic?

Mayor Kaminis replies: No way! I would say that my previous position as the Ombudsman was a spring board for me, a position that prepared me to manage a large organization. It enabled me to acquire all the necessary experience in order to deal with the demanding challenges of running the municipality of Athens, the largest municipality in Greece and the capital of our country.

In my capacity as the Greek Ombudsman, I had the opportunity to closely review and understand the biggest problems that our citizens face on a daily basis. I dealt with issues and problems that arose out of the contradictions and bottlenecks of the Greek bureaucracy. I realized the urgent need to fight against administrative malpractice and corruption in all its forms, but also the importance of safeguarding and protecting human rights.

When for the first time in 2010, I run for the office of the Mayor of Athens I was very aware and conscious of the difficulties that I would face if I were elected; it was a sort of bet with myself that I was determined to win. The citizens of Athens honored and rewarded me by re-electing me as their Mayor of Athens for a second term in 2014. This is my greatest personal honor.